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In the daytime, the air was filled with the smell of the nearby refinery and the discount bakery where Daphne worked. The crack of the bats from the little league field.
Nights were different. It was the year Daphne’s guy classmates became her lovers. At least that was how Daphne framed it to herself. They would come to her late at night, after frustrating sessions with their girlfriends. She collected and kept their semen in squares of aluminum foil, which she stored in the nightstand beside her twin bed. The yellow-lit air was punctuated by the sound of foghorns and the freight train’s moan.
After graduation, her English teacher, Mr. Clark, invited her to live with him in swanky Santa Monica. Mr. Clark was an apple-cheeked Midwesterner with a nice car, and belts with tasteful silver buckles. A rack of pastel-colored neckties. He called himself a movie buff. In his rent-controlled apartment, he had an entire armoire fitted out with shelves for his movies. His kitchen cupboards were stocked with Fiesta Ware dishes and fancy jam. Daphne awoke each day to beach haze and the swish of palms outside the bedroom window. Slim joggers like a string of rosary beads traversing Montana Avenue. It felt like a different world from the blue-collar town where she’d grown up. Mr. Clark’s decency was a brand-new page atop her blurry, messy senior year. She’d barely passed her classes.
For Daphne, sex was like a needed scouring. Searing her the way cold soda burns the back of the throat. But Mr. Clark was tender. Sometimes he talked about his day teaching as he undressed. Sex with him always began lying down. It included a lot of eye contact.
Mr. Clark introduced her to his friend, Matteo. Matteo lived just down the street, close to the Montana Avenue branch of the Santa Monica library. The floors of his bachelor pad were bare wood and a red drum kit was set up in the middle of the living room. Matteo shaved his hair close, like a shadow against his dark skin. His legs were muscled and nearly hairless; he gleamed. Matteo was the only person Daphne had ever met who grew up in Malibu.
Sitting at a cafe, Matteo told them about his French ex-girlfriend, who had said as she was breaking up that she was available to him for sex, any time. She adored their skins together, she had told him in her marvelous voice.
Back at his apartment, Mr. Clark told Daphne about sitting under the table when his mother had her bridge club friends over. He’d get aroused at the sight of their legs, he said. Years later, he’d even had an affair with one of them. Just like The Last Picture Show, he added. Mr. Clark told her this at the dinner table, shirtless. Maybe he was trying to add a little frisson of worldliness, like Matteo with his French ex-girlfriend. But Mr. Clark was pale, with a hairy nascent paunch and pink nipples that made Daphne avert her gaze.
Daphne began struggling with sleep. At work, she’d doze at her desk. One night, when Mr. Clark was at an evening meeting at the school, she called Matteo to ask if he had anything she could take. The intimacy of his voice in her ear gave her a feeling like the door to a little birdcage in her chest was floating open. He guessed they could meet at the Thai restaurant on Wilshire, he said after a pause. She got the message: they shouldn’t meet at either apartment, even though both were closer than the restaurant.
Once there, Matteo kept it buddy-buddy. He ordered tea without food, then handed her a single capsule over her plate of pad see-ew. Under the bright lights, she saw a wariness there. Or was it concern for her?
The next day, a Simi Valley jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers of assault. Three were also acquitted of excessive force against a construction worker named Rodney King. But Daphne had seen the brutality in the video footage taken from an overlooking apartment window. Everybody had seen it.
When the story broke, she was in her cubicle listening to KCRW. The elderly CEO messaged from his home office in faraway Calabasas that everyone had better go home. Make sure to stock up on water, he added.
Unlike the town where Daphne grew up, her workplace and apartment were miles from the uprising the news reported. It took two hours to drive the three miles to Santa Monica. At the convenience store, the water shelf was bare, so she got packages of dried ramen noodles and candy. Everyone in line was white. No one looked at each other or spoke. It was the kind of place that sold plastic lighters and “loosies,” or loose cigarettes of indeterminate make. She added four and smoked one in her car.
Mr. Clark and Matteo and Daphne spent the evening together on the couch, eating the candy. Instead of the news, they watched To Sir, With Love. Matteo and Mr. Clark drank the beers Matteo had brought. Daphne sat in the middle holding both of their hands.
Mr. Clark and Matteo argued playfully about who was “Sir,” the teacher played by Sidney Poitier in the movie. “If you want to dance wif me, you bleedin’ well ask proper!” Daphne squeaked like the girl in the movie. Matteo put his sweater across her legs and Clark patted her knee.
The movie ended. The candy was almost gone. The three stood in the doorway in silence, blowing smoke from their loosies into the night. The smoke drifted back to them and into the apartment. It didn’t matter, Daphne said. Finally, Matteo said he guessed he’d better hit it. He and Mr. Clark shook hands, an oddly formal gesture.
Daphne found herself seized with an animal need for Matteo to stay, rather than travel the two blocks home. This feeling was not sexual, as Mr. Clark would have thought had Daphne released the cry trapped in her throat.
She watched Matteo walk up 19th Avenue for as long as she could see him in the silent, yellow-lit street. The stars in the sky were like cold and faraway fires. She remembered something Matteo had told her at the Thai restaurant, when she couldn’t sleep and he’d handed her one of his sleeping pills. He had said that even the meager strands that bound him to his life – he was single, didn’t own a home, had no children – seemed at times too heavy.
“What do you want?” she’d asked. She wasn’t flirting or hoping for physical intimacy although she probably wouldn’t have turned him down had he asked.
“I want to be a molecule. In a piece of toast, say,” he’d answered. “Just being. Regarded by no one.”
Daphne bent for the cigarette ends they’d dropped and Matteo had extinguished with the tip of his shoe. Drunk on three beers, Clark lobbed miniature candy bars at her back.
The birdcage door in her chest stirred and she started to cry.